As any parent will tell you, raising a teenager can be tough these days. Just look at the headlines: Teen drug and alcohol use is up, the number of teenagers in abusive relationships is staggering and all while high school graduation rates continue to fall. It can be a lot for parents and kids to deal with, but thankfully there is some good news out there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just released a report showing teen pregnancy has dropped significantly in the past decade– down 37 percent from 1991– the lowest rates on record since the Center started collecting pregnancy data 70 years ago. It’s a step in the right direction, but Sonia Chalfin, RN, PNP of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Young Parents Program (YPP), says there’s still much work to be done to educate young people about the possible repercussions of sex because approximately 1,100 girls between the ages of 15-19 become mothers every day in this country.
“Parents, teachers and health care providers need to feel comfortable discussing the details of pregnancy prevention with the teenagers they work with,” she says. “They shouldn’t be afraid that access to information is going to encourage young people to have sex too early. In fact, the more age-appropriate reproduction information young people know, the better off they will be when it comes to making good decisions for themselves.”
America’s teen pregnancy rate is almost nine times higher than other developed nations. Chalfin attributes these high numbers to the large economic disparities that exist here, which tend to be more pronounced than in some developed countries. “Studies have shown teen pregnancy and birth rates are directly linked to socio-economics and education level of adolescent parents,” she says. “Teen pregnancy and parenting are a result of a much larger social and economic environment—young people who don’t see academic or career success in their future may see parenting as one of the only ways to show that they are growing up.”
Turning the tide against such a deep-rooted problem may seem overwhelming, but according to Chalfin, access to contraception, safe, legal abortions and plenty of pregnancy-prevention information could successfully lower the teen birth rate. “First, children should be taught about male and female anatomy and reproduction so that they will not be fooled by all the false information that’s available to them,” she says. “As children get older, maybe middle school, more specific information and practice in identifying and setting limits for contact can be discussed. Practicing saying ‘no’ in a variety of situations will help young people keep themselves safe in dating situations and start to trust their own judgment as it relates to their sexuality.”
Teen pregnancy may be a national problem, but a young person’s sexual development is very personal. No two people experience it the same way, so the specifics of the sex education offered should be tailored to the needs of the individual. To ensure that help is available to adolescents who need it most, Chalfin says adults need to pay close attention to the teens in their lives.
“Young people that are struggling socially, academically or in dysfunctional family situations are much more likely to get pregnant while young, and keep the pregnancy when they do,” she says. “These are the kids that healthcare providers, teachers and members of the community should be watching out for, and making sure they have access to more intensive services if they need them.”